Thursday, January 19, 2012

Parshat VaEra - A Brief History of the Universe

I am going to tell a story.  The story is of a cosmic battle between good and evil, a story of primordial forces and moral choices.

Let’s start at the beginning of the story, and I really mean the beginning.  About 14 billion years ago, God created the Universe in a Big Bang.  In that primordial תהו ובהו  (chaos), the laws of physics reigned supreme.  Chemistry, as such, had no meaning yet, but soon, as atoms and molecules started to form in the early universe, basic laws of chemistry emerged.  In particular, there was one law, a fundamental part of both physics and chemistry.  It is known today as the second law of thermodynamics, and it shaped the developing universe. 

The second law of thermodynamics states that the universe is always trending towards a state of greater disorder.  Entropy, or chaos, is increasing at all times.  Any locally ordered state comes at the price of more disorder in the environment.  My professor of statistical mechanics many years ago suggested that the second law was simply an outcome of the fact that disordered states are much more numerous than ordered states, but Stephen Hawking has suggested that the second law is so fundamental that the passage of time can be defined as the direction in the space time continuum in which entropy increases.

The implication of the second law is death.  Nothing can live forever, nothing can last forever.  The Universe, in its infinite diversity, could create all kinds of structures and beings, but they are all, sooner or later, doomed to death and destruction.  Entropy always wins.

But then, about 4 billion years ago, something amazing happened.  In the ocean of a small green planet orbiting around an average sized yellow sun, molecules were randomly forming and unforming, entropy breaking them up before they could form anything significant.  Then in a divinely directed random event, a molecule developed a remarkable property.  In its short life span, before entropy broke it back up into its constituent pieces, this molecule could use the materials floating around it to build a copy of itself.  It cheated death.  As long as it could create a copy of itself once before breaking up, its structure could outlive the lifespan determined by the second law. 

But it gets better!  The molecule wasn’t a perfect copier.  Sometimes the copies were slightly different from the original.  Most of the time, the changes were either neutral or damaging.  The copy might be unable to copy itself again.  Once in awhile, though, a change improved things.  The molecule could make 2, then 3 then 10 copies of itself before entropy got to it.  The new, better molecules would quickly crowd out the older ones, using up the available raw materials faster. 

After 10 billion years of hegemony, physics had made room for biology.  Entropy still meant that all things died, but reproduction meant that living things could live beyond the time dictated by the second law, through their offspring.  Ordered states could get more and more complex, since they could build structure across generations.  The battle between biology and physics – between life and death - was joined.

Once the process started, it was unstoppable.  Molecules gave way to multi-molecular structures, which gave way to proto-cells, and then cells, and multi-cellular organisms and to whole ecosystems.  A great diversity of life began to spread across the Earth, not only in the ocean but on land as well.  And God saw that it was good.

And then, only a few million years ago, a creature evolved out of this great diversity of life that had a new capability.  It could look around itself and rather than simply automatically going on with the business of feeding itself and reproducing, it could ask “Why?”    God, who had been waiting for this new creature, breathed into it an immortal soul, and called it “human.”

Humans created a problem that was new to the Universe.  To quote Neo from the Matrix, the problem is choice.  Unlike all the creations before it, humans must choose their side in the battle between life and death.  The battle is no longer between impersonal, unthinking cosmic forces – it is a moral battle.  A battle in which we are called to choose sides.

We are now brought to the confrontation in our Parsha, only a few thousand years ago.

Our sages over the centuries have found the most basic of philosophical problems in our Parsha.  If, as we have said, the fundamental property of the human being is choice, how could God have taken that choice from Pharaoh, when his heart was hardened against freeing the Jews?  I don’t propose to delve deeply into this question, except to say that the philosophical crisis it created implies that it must be the exception that proves the rule – human beings have choice.

Pharaoh was the leader of a civilization that had chosen the side of death in the great battle of the Universe.  They built monuments to their dead that survive until today.  They saw the great life-force of the Israelites,

 ('וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, פָּרוּ וַיִּשְׁרְצוּ וַיִּרְבּוּ וַיַּעַצְמוּ--בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד; וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ, אֹתָם. (שמות א' ז

"And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them." (Exodus 1:7)

Their response was fear, enslavement, and murder.  In addition to choosing death as their ultimate value, they denied the choice existed. Entropy after all, would always win in the end.  The Israelites must not be given the freedom to choose.

Standing before this Pharaoh is Moshe, who has come to tell him that there is a God, the God of life, the God of freedom.  It is not enough for this moment of history that the Israelites be freed.  The civilization of death must bow before the God of life, who can cause the Nile to run with life-blood, and the land to teem with frogs and vermin and beasts, and who can also bring sickness, death and destruction in the service of life and freedom, when necessary.

At the forefront of our story is Moshe, who some 40 years later, will tell his people of the battle they must continue, and the choice they must make as he sends them off into their lives as a people:

 רְאֵה נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַיּוֹם, אֶת-הַחַיִּים וְאֶת-הַטּוֹב, וְאֶת-הַמָּוֶת, וְאֶת-הָרָע (דברים ל' ט"ו).

“Behold, I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil,” (Deuteronomy 30:15)

הַעִדֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם, אֶת-הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת-הָאָרֶץ--הַחַיִּים וְהַמָּוֶת נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ, הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה (דברים ל' י"ט);

“I call heaven and earth to witness before you this day, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life.” (Deuteronomy 30:19)

The choice we have is a moral one – life is good and a blessing, death is evil and a curse. 
This is the battle of our Parsha, and the battle of our lives.  

Choose life.   As Moshe said,

 וּבָחַרְתָּ, בַּחַיִּים--לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה, אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ. לְאַהֲבָה אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקֹלוֹ וּלְדָבְקָה-בוֹ: כִּי הוּא חַיֶּיךָ, וְאֹרֶךְ יָמֶיךָ
('דברים ל' י"ט-כ)

“Choose life, that you may live, you and your children.  To love the Lord, your God, to listen to God’s voice, and to cleave to God.  For that is your life and the length of your days.” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20)

Choosing life means choosing to love, to create, to build, to care.   It means choosing to see and to cherish the diversity of humanity and all life.    It means choosing to see the intrinsic value of each and every human being, and acting on the implications of that.  It is not a onetime choice.  It is a choice one must make over and over again throughout a lifetime.

Choose life.

(This dvar torah was originally delivered last year at my daughter's bat mitzvah)

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